- Tobacco

Did John Rolfe Witness the First African Slaves Arrival to North America?

John Rolfe was an Englishman born in Heacham, Norfolk, in 1585. During his early years Spain held almost a world monopoly on the highly lucrative tobacco trade, a subject of which he had a particular interest.

The Spanish crops were mostly grown in their southern colonies of the New World where the climate was ideal for the growth of tobacco, England being a particularly prominent customer for their product.

Rolfe in his formative years studied the tobacco trade in detail and managed to ‘acquire’ some of Spain’s unique tobacco seeds, this was remarkable as in Spain selling them was a crime punishable by death.

This Spanish strain of tobacco had a number of customer satisfaction benefits over other countries crops, firstly it was sweeter, yet most significantly it was far stronger in nicotine, a narcotic, the stimulant value of which and addictive properties not being understood for many years to come, users only felt compelled that they wanted more.

To successfully compete against Spanish growers Rolfe recognized the need to move to a more favourable climate than England’s and so he set sail for the New World

English colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in North America. This colony had been formed in the May of 1607 although unbeknown to Rolfe it was as yet struggling to survive.

In 1609 Rolfe boarded the ‘Sea Venture’ heading for Jamestown, however as they approached Bermuda a hurricane struck and wrecked the ship, some travellers were saved but among the dead were Rolfe’s wife and baby daughter.

Rolfe himself had survived and in the May of 1610 he left Bermuda and finished his voyage in a repaired ship that had been a part of the small convoy of which the Sea Venture had been the flagship.

Upon Rolfe’s arrival the British colonies in Virginia were already producing a grade of inferior tobacco, but finding markets to buy their low quality produce was proving to be a problem. But when Rolfe’s Spanish seed crop succeeded and became available for sale the local and export markets demand started to rocket.

John Rolfe named his brand ‘Orinoco Tobacco’ thus paying homage to one of tobacco’s greatest advocates, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Orinoco being the flagship on his exploratory voyage to find the fabled city of El Dorado.

Rolfe’s plantations were well situated alongside the St James River outside of Jamestown for the benefits of irrigation, these lands were originally uncultivated and so allowed for inexpensive expansion when trade and profits allowed, he named his plantations under the group banner of the ‘Varina Farms’.

In 1615 he re-married but this time to the daughter of an indigenous Indian chief, her name was ‘Pocahontas’ who later became famous in her own right as the pagan squaw who was converted to become a refined Christian bride, her tale became so well-known that she was invited to visit England to meet with the royal family.

So up until the August of 1619 the English colonies in Virginia had used only indigenous Indian labour or Europeans who had been enticed to migrate to the New World to find a better life than living in squalor in their own country.

Then late in this month an English ‘privateer’ ship named the ‘White Lion’ sailed into the St James River to drop anchor in view of Rolfe from his properties.

John Rolfe was undoubtedly not the only person to witness the unusual cargo standing aboard the ship, but he was the author of very detailed and accurate journals of events which to this day are used as creditable educational materials of the time.

His writings describe ‘Twenty and odd’ dark skinned natives, which he presumed to be of African origin. They were promptly disembarked and offered for sale in the market to the highest bidder.

Rolfe also went further to note that the purchasers of the African slaves were the Governor of Jamestown, Sir George Yeardley and one of the primary town merchants, both of whom kept their new purchases to work on their own significant plantations.

It was later established that these particular African’s originated from the kingdom of Ndongo, (now Angola), and could only speak the language of ‘Kimbundu’, thus being totally incapable of pleading their case for help or release.

Needless to say that they had been brutally kidnapped by slave traders, themselves being of African descent, and then forcibly marched to the coast to be sold to one of thirty-six Portuguese or Spanish Transatlantic slave ships.

In this case the ship had been the Spanish ‘San Juan Bautista’ which had stopped at Veracruz in Mexico to take on water when the English ‘privateer’ The White Lion and her sister ship the Treasurer had attacked.

Finding the Spanish ship in poor repair and not worth taking for a prize the victors searched for valuables but found none, in desperation to turn a profit the privateers divided up the best slaves, the White Lion then headed up the North American coast to Virginia to hopefully make a sale worthy of resupplying their ship with essential food and supplies.

Although John Rolfe’s journals from 1619 are now commonly used to describe the origins of slavery in North America, other less prominent tales exist which infer that African slaves may have been present in other parts of the Americas from as early as the 1400’s.

Therefore it is not unreasonable to assume that John Rolfe may have been a genuine witness to the arrival of the first slaves to the thirteen colonies of Virginia in North America, but the Transatlantic Slave Trade, whilst still in its infancy had already begun to make significant deliveries of its African cargo elsewhere.